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Ultimate Frisbee club soars with success

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As memorable names go, Holy Mackerel has to be one of the more distinct monikers ever to appear on the jersey of an area sports club.

The Center Grove-area ultimate Frisbee club is creating far more memories than just with its name, as it has earned its fourth consecutive state crown.

Behind the on-field success is the ongoing, successful establishment of the organization as a prominent part in the area youth sports scene. Under the leadership of 20-year-old head coach Jake Phillips and club secretary Cathy Halloran, Mackerel is expanding its reach into the community with recreational leagues, player development programs and an increased effort to get parents interested in the club and sport.

Founded in 2003 by Center Grove teacher Eric Howe, Holy Mackerel has grown to have more than 50 players on its three school-aged teams. More than 150 players of all ages play on a pair of summer recreational leagues organized by the club.

Phillips said players have always had enthusiasm for the game, but the club is now growing in organization and accomplishment.

Mackerel won its latest Indiana championship June 14-15, winning its five matches by an average score of 67-13. The club’s “A” team also recently finished third in the USA Ultimate Midwest Regional Championship in Chicago.

“Ultimate Frisbee” is actually a misnomer as “Frisbee” is a trademark-protected brand of flying disc. The sport’s official name is simply “ultimate.” The game involves passing the disc to a teammate in the opposing end zone.

“We’ve taken some of our biggest strides off the field in the past year,” Phillips said. “We’re working to be more organized, professional and public. We want to get the public more involved and get the participation of sponsors. We’re starting to see the fruit of those efforts with things like our website as a one-stop place to get information on the game and our club.

“Our hope is to change our image from ‘I’ve never heard of this’ to ‘This looks really cool, and I want to be a part of it.’”

Phillips is a student at IUPUI and played four years on the Mackerel team when he was in high school. He plays on an adult club team and the college team, along with helping other school club teams, such as Perry Meridian, get started.

While the sport is noted for its players making many of the key decisions in club business, he said that increased parent involvement can be an important step in the growth of the sport.

“Cathy and I have made a big effort to make every communication with parents to be as professional and organized as possible. This helps to get parents support,” he said. “Even when I played, the sport didn’t always seem real (compared to official varsity sports); but now with more parents getting involved, the support and the quality of everything we do gets better as well.”

About the game

Ultimate involves two teams of players playing on a field 100 yards long with two end zones. Players advance the disc with passes and are not allowed to run with the disc. An incomplete or intercepted pass results in change of possession. When players catch the disc, they have 10 seconds to get rid of it or surrender possession. A completed pass into the end zone results in the successful team scoring a point.

Players making their own refereeing decisions, with a strong emphasis on sportsmanship and congeniality.

Phillips said his interest in the sport stems both from the action of the game itself but also the culture surrounding it.

“There is a perfect mix of strategy and athleticism I really appreciate. It’s a different style of sport,” he said. “It is similar to basketball with the quick transition from offense to defense, but I like that everybody on the field is like a quarterback. Everybody has to make decisions. To an outsider it might look like a lot of kids just running around, but to an experienced player there is an internal clock and the timing is everything.”

Center Grove High School made Mackerel an official school club before the 2013-14 season. Phillips hopes at some point to see the sport reach varsity status at the school, even though it is not sanctioned by the IHSAA.

As the club has grown, Phillips said Halloran, a parent of a player on the team, has made a big difference in its organization. She has organized the spirit wear for the players and the end-of-year banquet and communicates with parents.

“When I played, most parents didn’t support it or didn’t know what was going on. But she has put in so many hours to make sure our communication is good. It helps make the community a lot more involved.”

Community aspect

Halloran said she became interested when her son Connor got involved with the sport.

“I could see the club founder was trying to do a lot of things, and one day asked if I could help with doing something, it had to do with Spirit Wear,” Halloran recalled. “Jake came on board, and he and I talked about growing the club. I had seen some of the seniors who had a great passion for the sport were leaving, and we needed to bring in more people. What’s amazing to me is how the sport of ultimate is primarily run by the youth.”

The club also provides a connection for players, some of whom may feel a bit lost in a student body as large as Center Grove’s.

Halloran experienced the support of this community firsthand over the past year after being diagnosed with cancer. Players wore pink jerseys and arm sleeves in a show of support at the 2013 state championships, something she said provided a significant encouragement for her and her family.

Her son Connor, a player with the club’s first team, also cited the camaraderie that Mackerel provides.

“I’ve played other sports and not really been friends with the people in my team. I think here it’s different,” he said. “You feel a connection with your team. It helps that a lot of players have a lot of say in the things we do, plus you have opportunities to volunteer and help out and stuff.”

‘Fun and accepting’

Jackie Humphress, a departing senior who was one of two girls competing on club teams, hopes to play the sport at IUPUI. She credits the camaraderie on the team for some success.

“A lot of times we will hang out together or go out to eat as a group after tournaments,” she said. “I’ve made a lot of friends here.”

The competitions have a strong emphasis on sportsmanship, self-policing and players becoming friends with teammates and opponents. Phillips said this is a big part of its appeal.

His near-term goal for the club are ambitious.

“We want Mackerel to continue reaching out with advertising and changing the image of the club to attract more people,” he said. “In a few years we’d like 100 to 120 people, four teams and one girls team. Since 2003 we’ve had girls here and there but never been able for them to have their own team. If we can get that started, it would be huge for the college scene around here. The ultimate community is big on gender equity so that would be great to accomplish that.”

Phillips hopes to see the club’s two summer leagues grow to provide a good feeder for the high school club team and to adult club teams in the area. Adding middle school teams and youth leagues are also goals.

Mackerel members were recently part of an outdoor symposium with approximately 60 physical education teachers, explaining the rules and techniques of the game in the hopes that it will become part of physical education curricula around the state.

Along the way, players should learn leadership qualities.

“You want to give kids opportunities to grow into leaders. We’ll have them do activities that help teach leadership and administrative skills. At the college level they are not likely to have some renowned coach, so they will have to help get things organized to help build and effective program.”

Halloran said the addition of 16 freshmen this season is further proof that the club has potential.

“The most gratifying thing to me is the growth of the club,” she said. “To think we have this many new kids who were looking for a sport like this is just amazing to me. I’ve had parents come up to me and say, ‘I’m so glad my son found ultimate.’ There’s a place for everybody in this.”

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